London riots: Politicians should keep their hands off Twitter and Facebook

Government must go softly at crisis meeting with big social networks...

As representatives from the big social networks prepare to meet the UK government about blocking rioters from their sites,'s Nick Heath argues that this might be a situation where the best course is simply to do nothing at all.

Twitter, Facebook and RIM will meet ministers tomorrow to discuss restricting access to social networks in periods of civil unrest, such as during the riots that hit England earlier this month.

The technology companies will meet Home Secretary Theresa May and police to assess whether new measures are needed to prevent rioters colluding online.

A Home Office spokesman said: "Among the issues to be discussed is whether and how we should be able to stop people communicating via these websites and services when we know they are plotting violence, disorder and criminality."

Theresa May social media meeting

Home Secretary Theresa May is meeting Facebook, Twitter and RIM to discuss the need for new measures to restrict rioters' access to social mediaPhoto: Home Office

Social media has been in the dock for its role in exacerbating August's disturbances - with reports that rioters in London were using BlackBerry Messenger to co-ordinate their movements and instances of Facebook being used to incite disorder.

Speaking ahead of tomorrow's meeting, tech companies stressed the procedures they already have in place to police social networks, but would not comment on what new measures they would be willing to implement to curb illegal behaviour on their services.

RIM issued a statement saying it has "engaged with the authorities to assist in any way we can", while a Facebook spokeswoman said the social network had stepped up its efforts to remove "credible threats of violence" from the site in the days following the riots.

Unfortunately, the signs are there that the government is gunning for some new blunt-force measure that will probably fail to prevent social networks being used for illegal activity, but will cause collateral damage to legitimate users.

The reality is that the best course of action for May, Facebook et al would be to do nothing, and look to existing laws to control the use of social networks.

Most online services already remove offending material if served with a take-down notice by authorities - bypassing the need for any new regulation.

And history tells us that technical measures do a poor job of controlling human behaviour, as those determined lawbreakers will always find a work-around.

Look at Digital Rights Management (DRM) - the copyright protection software slapped on movies, music and other media to hamper piracy, which proved so ineffectual at tackling illegal file-sharing that it was eventually abandoned by Apple and the major music studios.

Just as music pirates sidestepped DRM, those determined to use social networks for criminality will find new communication channels away from prying eyes, bury their seditious threats under encryption or obscure their IP address to prevent identification.

Rather than censoring social networks, police would be...